The Canal (Part 2) – Low Tide (Dhanyakataka – 50 AD)

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Continued from Last Week…

It’s not usual that the council receives such summonses.

It was a rivercraft built at the yards of Kudura, for swift travel. An urgent summons from the king himself made Vishnu, the president of the city council, travel forty nautical miles upriver to the capital. The entire city council accompanied him. Nila, his wife, insisted that she came along. She had a faint doubt that the orders had something to do with the incident that took place at her house. Even Vishnu had heard rumors that the worm Karataka was seen at the capital trying to kick up some trouble, which he had ignored until now.

Ghantika Saila was an autonomous city owned by a consortium of guilds, a commercial enterprise with its own laws and membership, ruled by the council duly elected by its various stakeholders. They even minted their own coins, which are accepted worldwide as means of exchange. The president of course was appointed by his employers, Odayantrikas, the Guild of Hydraulics, who owned the majority stake. The representatives of the guilds of weavers, metal workers, bankers and some rich merchants made up the rest. Needless to say such projects needed active support and protection of the king.

The raised foredeck gave him a clear view of the lay ahead. The breeze was strong and nippy, and his wife Nila snuggled into his arm, a shiver of anxiety, only he could feel. As the ship turned the corner around the Avarasaila hill, the colossal chaitya of Dhanyakataka greeted them. He made a silent prayer to the Lord whose relics are interred there. Even though he had been brought up in orthodoxy and a strict adherent to its practices and beliefs, he had never felt any conflict. Each had its own place in the society and of course his mind.

Lamps were being lit on the chaitya, thousands of them. Huge masts of the ships silhouetted against the crimson sky crowded the riverfront. A line was dropped at the prow to measure fathoms as the captain guided the ship carefully on a wide circuit skirting the traffic at the docks, to a farther point near the castle gates. A delegation of merchants was waiting at the dock protected by a large contingent of king’s troops, and beyond, an angry mob, hundreds of men, its noise like the waters rushing in at the high tide.

There was a sense of urgency as the ship entered the dock, its portside hitting the embankment with a thud. The shouts of the mob were clearer now…

Death to the Sinners … Go back … Go back

Death to the Barbarians … Go back … Go back

Death to the Whores … Go back … Go back

The moment they stepped on ground the mob surged forward its intent obviously violent. Vishnu wondered who they were. ‘They aren’t from here,’ a merchant chipped in, ‘mobilized in hundreds from the countryside.’

The line of soldiers was pushed back for a moment but held. A few missiles, rotten fruit and dung balls, flew in and fell safely a few feet away.

‘Come on,’ the merchant shouted, ‘we must get inside the castle, the city isn’t safe anymore.’ and guided them crouching behind the cordon of soldiers. Vishnu ran behind him, shielding his wife with his bulk, up a steep path leading to the castle. Others followed as the soldiers withdrew, retreating behind them until they were safely behind the gates.

‘It has been like this for a week now,’ someone shouted over the din of sloganeering outside the gates, ‘markets are closed, the waterfront is crowded with ships, unable to unload their goods, as the docks are also closed. Even people are scared of stepping out of their communities.’

‘There was some rioting in the market street a few days back,’ the captain of the soldiers butted in, ‘we were able to bring it under control.’

‘But the numbers are swelling,’ another merchant said, ‘there was an attack on a lodge in the foreign quarter; it was thwarted but a little too late,’ his reproach apparent. ‘Three seamen from Fareast were lynched in the plain sight of your soldiers.’

‘What can we do?’ the captain retorted, ‘the orders are clear from the Queen Mother, not to harm anyone.’

‘Who’s behind them?’ Vishnu asked finally, tired of the quarrel.

‘Let’s get inside, you’ll get your answers,’ the captain said curtly ushering them into the court hall. The members of the city council, elders of the empire and the lords of the neighboring provinces; the court was crowded, but clearly divided in the middle. The delegation bowed to the throne, King Satakarni, a mere child of eight, returned their greeting, with dignity much beyond his age, but everyone’s attention was focused on the one seated to his right, the queen mother, Gautami Balasri, a lady in mid-twenties, too young to be widowed but mature enough to hold the reins of the empire.

‘The council of Ghantika Saila,’ she addressed him directly, ‘I hear some serious complaints about the running of your town,’ her voice was stern and face somber. ‘What have you to say in your defense?’

‘Your highness…’ Vishnu launched himself, bowing low, ‘the complaints are baseless, the canal and the town were built in record time, and in the last three years we have remitted more than four hundred thousand in silver into the treasury,’ he had prepared well with his speech. ‘The hazard of sandbars is completely eliminated resulting in enormous savings to the shipping; and in turn a fourfold increase in traffic from the east. The cost of raw material imports has come down, for example, the price of raw silk from China had dropped so much, a thousand new looms were set up by the Weavers Guild in and around the town, improving the overall prosperity of the region. And, your highness, most importantly, we were able to repay most of the debt from the bankers and in the last spring we had even declared a profit of a quarter on every Pana invested by the stakeholders,’ Vishnu paused to catch his breath and let the numbers sink in.

The Queen Mother nodded. The investment required for an enterprise that large was substantial and the risks equally high. A port tax of ten percent and a rent on land augmented the imperial treasury. The Andhra Empire had more than thirty such ports, coastal and inland, making it one of the richest kingdoms in the known world. She herself had invested a hundred thousand through the bankers’ guild and the profits were used to import a thousand cavalry horses from Persia.

‘But… the complaint is not about how you conduct your business;’ she said at last, ‘the problem is how you are running the civic life of your town.’ The right half the court erupted in cheers followed by shouts, ‘Sinners… Evil… Wicked…’

From somewhere from behind a lone voice shouted, ‘Whore…’ Heads turned to see who it was; it was an affront to the presence of royalty and a violation of decorum. Vishnu noticed the man, and recognized the face, twisted and misshapen though, from the beating he received on that fateful night. So my wife is right, it is this wicked worm, Karataka behind all this.

Vishnu was aware of the frugal ways of the village folk which contrasted greatly from the luxuries of the cities, causing tensions, often taking religious overtones. He himself hailed from a village, where the society is organized on a class system of highs and lows ordained by birth, whereas now, in the city, those disparities faded away. He represents a new grouping formed based on economic gain. The cities also are more receptive to new fashions, lifestyles, and of course ideas that endorsed a social order based on equality. The urban artisans and merchants, members of the guilds such as his, have become vocal and conspicuous supporters of heterodox faiths. While back home in the village, especially the elite, and even his own family, is feeling threatened.

It’s not that the queen mother is not aware of the differences, but her priority is immediate peace. He had immense faith in the Satavahana kings, who had been successful for over three hundred years in ensuring that a proper balance is struck, and they had redistributed wealth in a way to keep the rural folk contented. Tax sops and periodic land grants to the orthodox, men and institutions, kept the region more or less peaceful.

But… an incident like this can provide a spark for a larger conflagration.

Now it’s beyond him, he knew. ‘I submit, your highness, to your judgement. I have only done what I felt was right when I beat up the man who had insulted my guests and my wife.’ He bowed low and stood up stonily facing the throne.

Now the queen mother weighed her options, the man is blameless, he had only acted as his honor dictated, and he’s loyal to the crown. But the complaint has nothing to do with it. It’s about how he abetted the mixing of highborn and the low; and allowed undue freedom to women; both are against the tenets of orthodox law, which the king is oath-bound to protect. Pardon is out of question, that will incite the mob further and the crisis may spread to other cities, and that would be the end of the empire, especially when her own son the king is still a child.

As the queen mother announced her verdict, Karataka looked at Nila with a triumphant smile as she collapsed on her knees. She had only one thought in her mind… she should’ve let her husband crush the worm that night, instead of allowing it to rise as a venomous serpent today.



After the discovery of monsoon and annexation of Egypt, a typical Roman merchant vessel left the Red Sea ports like Berenice with tons of silver bullion and visited the western ports of Andhra Empire like Callienapolis (Kalyan near Bombay) or Barygaza (Bharuch in Gujarat) to purchase finished luxury goods.

The luxuries included highly ornamented silks and muslins; jewelry with precious corals, emeralds and pearls; perfumes of sandal, aloe and camphor; artefacts made of precious woods, ivory, steel and wicker; food preservatives and medicinal formulations made of exotic spices and herbs; the list seems unending. All these items were manufactured in Peninsular India. Whereas the principal items of exchange were horses, wines and an overwhelming quantity of silver.

The ports on the eastern seaboard serviced its interior with raw material imported from the lands across the eastern sea. Andhra merchants have established colonies and kingdoms in Southeast Asia to control the procurement. They have even established urban centers there specializing in mining, pearl fishing and forest produce. Raw silk, jade and a variety of produce came from China. The Satavahana kings maintained strong and friendly relations with the Han dynasty.

The material thus procured was converted into finished products at the various manufacturing centers in peninsular India. Across the Andhra Empire hundreds of these manufacturing centers grew into towns with a cosmopolitan culture. They became the hotbeds of heterodox faiths, especially Buddhism. The affluent townsmen – merchants, artisans, entertainers and bankers – endowed monumental religious structures. The Rural-Urban Conflicts became pronounced.

It became the responsibility of the state to redistribute wealth in such a way as to keep the majority contented. It was only after Satavahanas, the things came to a head. The collapse of Roman Empire led to a fall in the fortunes of these towns. Many were abandoned. The rural agrarian system triumphed and the ancient urban ruins became marks of suspicion and even derision. That the ruined mound of the ancient Ghantasala is today called Lanja-Dibba, Mound of the Whore, is just a case in point.







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